By Allan Muir
Vancouver announced the first notable signing from this year’s pool of NCAA free agent on Saturday: Kellan Lain. A 6′-6”, 220-pound forward, Lain scored 16 points and racked up 111 penalty minutes in 32 games with Lake Superior State this season. The Canucks are hoping they’ve uncovered the next Chris Kunitz. Odds are, they just acquired the next Ray Staszak.
Kunitz, currently enjoying his moment in the sun as the NHL’s second-leading scorer, was unwanted by the league, passed over twice in the draft, until a sensational 79-point season as a 23-year-old senior at Ferris State convinced the Anaheim Ducks that he might have a future after all. He was just a kid who was nowhere near ready at 18, and one who made great use of his extra time in college to develop. And he’s not alone among the late-blooming success stories.
Hall of Famers Adam Oates and Ed Belfour blazed the trail that has been followed by Andy McDonald, Tyler Bozak, Jason Garrison, Matt Read and current Calder Trophy candidate Cory Conacher, among others. But there is a larger number of players whose pro careers only remind everyone of why they went undrafted in the first place. Like Staszak, who was handed the first million dollar deal for a college free agent by the desperate Detroit Red Wings in 1985. His time in the NHL lasted all of four games.
But hope springs eternal, and with talent at a premium, there’ll be plenty of interest despite a relatively shallow crop of college UFAs this year.
Lain has a chance at a pro career, but after compiling 39 points and 210 PiMs over three seasons and 108 games at LSSU, the Canucks are realistic about his upside.
“We see him as a bottom-end center, more like Paul Gaustad or maybe a David Steckel-type player,” Canucks assistant GM Laurence Gilman told the Vancouver Province. “He can be a shutdown center.”
Steckel was a first rounder. Gaustad was taken 220th overall. The quest for talent is always a crapshoot, which makes a signing like this so appealing. Instead of using a pick, the Canucks simply give up an entry-level contract. That’s a very reasonable risk for a team that needs forwards with size, especially up the middle.
And that’s why there will be so many teams hoping to beat the odds and find their own diamond-in-the-rough.
Here are the players likely to draw the most interest as their college seasons end during the next few weeks.
Dan DeKeyser, defenseman, Western Michigan
The 6′-3″, 198-pound junior is regarded as the pick of the litter this spring. “He’s the total package,” one Western Conference scout said. “He put on some muscle this year, but he projects out to as a stronger player still. He’s got quick feet…great acceleration. Classic mobile defenseman. And he plays it smart. He’ll kill penalties, he’ll play late in close games. Just a very reliable kid.”
DeKeyser also earns high marks for his offensive game. He’s great in transition and can wire it from the point. His is not a heavy shot, but he’s very accurate.
The Red Wings are presumed to have an edge in the battle for his services. DeKeyser was born in Macomb, Mich., and his former coach, Jeff Blashill, is the head coach of Detroit’s AHL affiliate in Grand Rapids. He’s a patient kid — he could have turned pro last spring but decided he needed another year in college — and so Detroit’s slow-roast approach to player development won’t be an issue. Still, it’s thought that all 30 teams have some degree of interest in his services, and you never know who might give him just the right pitch.
Andrej Sustr, defenseman, Nebraska-Omaha
It’s the first thing that everyone talks about when Sustr’s name comes up. He’s big. Like, Zdeno Chara big. But there’s one other thing they all say about the 6′-8”, 225-pound blueliner: He’s going to require some patience.
Despite being four years past his draft age, the 22-year-old junior remains a work in progress. “He’s another guy that probably every team is looking at, but he’s going to take some patience,” our scout said. “His game is still really, really raw.”
The Czech defender uses his size effectively to take away space and win battles along the walls, and he’s going to be a bruiser. “[He's] more about positioning…taking away lanes, taking up space. He makes really good reads in his zone.”
Sustr moves the puck well, but he’s not going to be a big offensive contributor. “He has a heavy shot, like you’d expect,” the scout said. “That part of his game is something he’s gotten better at, but it’s not his strength.”
He also needs to work on skating, particularly his footwork.
Despite all these criticisms, Sustr’s still a highly coveted prospect. “He’s got stuff to work on because he’s got stuff to work on,” the scout quipped. “The tools are there. You can teach him a lot of things in the right environment. But, you know, you can’t teach size, and he’s just huge.”
Antoine Laganiere, center, Yale
The knock on Laganiere was always his skating, but he’s put in the work and molded himself into a legitimate prospect. The 22-year-old won’t be mistaken for a burner, but he’s quick off the mark and has decent top-end speed. He’s also gotten bigger and stronger — he’s at 6′-4”, 215 now — and he uses that size to battle to the front of the net. He scored nearly a point per game at Yale, so his hands aren’t bad, but he projects as a third-liner in the NHL.
Ryan Walters, center, Nebraska-Omaha
A worthy Hobey Baker candidate after ranking among the nation’s top scorers all season, the 21-year-old junior is probably the most offensively gifted player available.
“Smart, smart, smart,” our scout said. “Great vision…and he doesn’t need much of an opening to make a play. Strong skater, good hands. Not the biggest guy (6′-0”, 196), but he’s strong.”
Mavericks coach Dean Blais echoed that sentiment on omaha.com. “He’s always had that ability to be strong on the puck,” the coach said. “That comes from his skating and his physical strength. He’s not 6′-4”, but his strength is probably [comparable to] 6′-4.”
Blais also noted that improvements in Walters’ defensive game make him a reliable three-zone player. He led the Mavericks with a plus-25 rating.
Rylan Schwartz, forward, Colorado College
The older brother of St. Louis Blues center Jaden Schwartz proved that he was his own man with a smashing 46-point season. He lacks ideal size (5′-10”, 200), but he brings the same competitive fire and work ethic. “He doesn’t settle for space. He earns it,” a scout said. “He’s a strong skater [and] has a good shot with a nice, quick release. He knows how to score, but he’s probably more of a playmaker.”
He could mature into a reliable third-liner with 15-20-goal potential.
Trevor van Riemsdyk, defenseman, New Hampshire
Despite being the younger brother of an NHL first-rounder, TVR was bypassed at last summer’s draft. He did earn invites to prospects camps in Ottawa and Philly, though, and the experience helped him get his game on track. His confidence with the puck picked up to the point where he developed into one of the nation’s top offensive blueliners and he’s added muscle to a pretty lean frame. He remains a very, very raw prospect, but he should get a contract. Don’t be surprised if it’s with the Flyers.
Eriah Hayes, right wing, Minnesota State
The 6′-3″, 210-pound Hayes is a power forward in the making, a poor man’s Ryane Clowe. He scored 19 goals as a senior on the strength of a quick release and a willingness to battle for space in the slot, but his value in the NHL will primarily be as a physical presence who can work the boards and wear down a defense. He earned kudos for the effort he put in to improve his skating.
Greg Carey, forward, St. Lawrence
The most dangerous sniper in the NCAA led all college shooters in goals (28), power play goals (14) and game-winners (6). More than a few teams could use that kind of touch around the net. Carey is undersized (5′-11″, 190), but makes up for it with guile, net drive and a dangerous shot. His one-timer is lethal. He needs to get stronger and there are questions about his defensive game, but Carey’s offense should get him an offer.
Eric Hartzell, goaltender, Quinnipiac
The top free agent goalie on the market led the NCAA in wins (26-5-5) and posted a stellar 1.50 GAA and a .935 save percentage, earning a Hobey Baker nomination along the way. He’s got size (6′-4″, 190) and uses it well to take away space. “His fundamentals are good and he’s very coachable,” our scout said. “He’s really developed a nice swagger over the last two years. He’s carried that team on his back and he knows he can get the job done. I like that confidence.”
Hartzell projects as a solid NHL backup.